I am worried that well-meaning people who deny the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations are digging themselves into an indefensible position, one that will not survive the onslaught of science. I am also worried that whatever discoveries are made — and we truly have no idea yet what they will be — will be cited as “scientific proof” that racist prejudices and agendas have been correct all along, and that those well-meaning people will not understand the science well enough to push back against these claims.
This is why it is important, even urgent, that we develop a candid and scientifically up-to-date way of discussing any such differences, instead of sticking our heads in the sand and being caught unprepared when they are found.
Last weekend, a rather seismic op-ed appeared in the New York Times, and it was for a while one of the most popular pieces in the newspaper. It’s by David Reich, a professor of genetics at Harvard, who carefully advanced the case that there are genetic variations between subpopulations of humans, that these are caused, as in every other species, by natural selection, and that some of these variations are not entirely superficial and do indeed overlap with our idea of race. This argument should not be so controversial — every species is subject to these variations — and yet it is. For many on the academic and journalistic left, genetics are deemed largely irrelevant when it comes to humans. Our large brains and the societies we have constructed with them, many argue, swamp almost all genetic influences….
(Vox editor Ezra) Klein cannot seem to hold the following two thoughts in his brain at the same time: that past racism and sexism are foul, disgusting, and have wrought enormous damage and pain and that unavoidable natural differences between races and genders can still exist.
I know this is a touchy, fraught, difficult subject. I completely understand the reluctance to discuss it, and the hideous history of similar ideas in the past. But when people seeking the truth are immediately targeted for abuse and stigma, it matters. When genetics are in a golden age, when neuroscience is maturing as a discipline, and when the truth about these things will emerge soon enough, it matters that we establish a liberalism that is immune to such genetic revelations, that can strive for equality of opportunity, and can affirm the moral and civic equality of every human being on the planet. Liberalism has never promised equality of outcomes, merely equality of rights. It’s a procedural political philosophy rooted in means, not a substantive one justified by achieving certain ends.
That liberalism is integral to our future as a free society — and it should not falsely be made contingent on something that can be empirically disproven. It must allow for the truth of genetics to be embraced, while drawing the firmest of lines against any moral or political abuse of it. When that classical liberalism is tarred as inherently racist because it cannot guarantee equality of outcomes, and when scientific research is under attack for revealing the fuller truth about our world, we are in deep trouble. Because we are robbing liberalism of the knowledge and the moderation it will soon desperately need to defend itself.